James Lawton: Mourinho's will to win forges team all must beat

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The Independent Online

To love Chelsea it is also necessary to embrace Jose Mourinho. There is another problem. Even at their best - as they undoubtedly were in several vital aspects of their defeat of the European champions Barcelona this week - Mourinho's team, as it is currently composed, do not and cannot tug at your heartstrings.

They tend to be as romantic as a runaway truck. Barça, by comparison, are a beautiful confection and for a little while the icing of this delicious cake, brushed by the extraordinary talent of Lionel Messi, glittered quite brilliantly. But then Chelsea bit through the surface and found, competitively speaking, not very much at all.

By comparison the Chelsea cake is almost completely unadorned. However, it is rampant with protein. Take away the Michelin-star ingredient of Andrei Shevchenko, who is currently supplying about as much nourishment as a discarded crisp, and this is arguably the most functional team ever assembled in top-flight football.

This might sound like a veiled insult but it is not. It is simply an acknowledgement that, whatever we think of the attitudes and style of Mourinho, in the defining matter of producing a football team utterly in tune with its purpose and strengths he remains a phenomenon. In some ways this defeat of Barcelona - which brought the teams all square, with two wins each in the last three seasons - was the coach's supreme example of quite brilliant powers of motivation.

Unquestionably, Chelsea had placed themselves in a corner of the ring going into a match of huge psychological significance. Premiership form had been much less than convincing. Mourinho's viciously intemperate reaction to the disastrous injuries befalling his goalkeepers Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini confirmed a siege mentality to rival anything since the defence of Mafeking. There was also the growing suspicion that part of the pressure being applied to the coach by a Roman Abramovich hungry for European glory was the acquisition of Shevchenko and Michael Ballack, brilliant individuals but inevitably barriers to the kind of balance between defence and midfield which has always been the coach's main priority.

It was thus scarcely surprising that Mourinho looked so pensive when he took his place on the Stamford Bridge touchline on Wednesday night. Yet a little more than 90 minutes later he was so serene he might have been contemplating the world from his favourite point of pilgrimage, the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima.

Heaven and Our Lady know, there was reason enough in football terms. Despite the problem of Shevchenko - and it is one so huge that only the patronage of Abramovich can be keeping him in the team - Chelsea achieved in the second half a rhythm and a power that were nothing less than awesome.

Michael Essien and Frank Lampard will never touch the creative powers of a Deco or a Xavi or a Ronaldinho as long as they play the game. Yet their presence utterly dominated such luminaries long before the end of Wednesday's action. Ballack has yet to reproduce the authority he regularly displayed for Bayern Munich and Germany, but his commitment was as immense as his physical stature.

Didier Drogba, who stands only a few steps behind his coach in his contribution to the ambivalence which must inevitably crowd the thoughts of even the most fair-minded of critics when they appraise Chelsea, produced a near-perfect performance. He was willing to run not only for Shevchenko but for the entire team at those critical moments when Barça's virtuosity threatened to take control. His goal was guaranteed to break the spirit of any rivals, a fact which the champions of Europe only briefly challenged.

Mourinho had plainly gone back to the well in those vital minutes of the interval. He reminded his team of the basis of all their past achievement. It was an energy and a commitment which breaks down all opposition. In this the defence had merely to maintain the levels of their first-half performance, when John Terry had never more justified his aura as a born defender - and competitor. Beside him Ricardo Carvalho was as mean and as obdurate as ever.

None of this painted a picture of smooth development of a team which has had some basic structural problems imposed by the star system inherent in the signings of Shevchenko and Ballack. For the foreseeable future Chelsea will continue to lack the width and bite which were so brilliantly supplied in Mourinho's first season by Arjen Robben, who came off the bench on Wednesday, and developed by Joe Cole, who stayed on it. It is not, anyway, one of Mourinho's tactical necessities. Even with the full unit of Robben, Cole, Damien Duff and Shaun Wright-Phillips, Mourinho's leaning was to play it tight - and narrow. It undid him badly in his European débâcles against the cunning of Liverpool's Rafa Benitez, and caused the first questioning of his long-term ability to guide Chelsea to the peak of the Continental game as well the domestic.

Victory over Barcelona does not automatically dissolve those doubts. But it does highlight a strength that may have been too easily obscured. It is Mourinho's ability to produce outstanding honesty of effort, an amalgam of ambition and concentration which at times, and certainly on Wednesday night, touches the unbeatable. Yesterday the bookmakers installed Chelsea as the new favourites to win the big prize. No doubt this had more to do with the reaction of the market than the overwhelming significance of what, after all, was an inevitably indecisive group game. But then none of Mourinho's rivals, at home or abroad, can draw too much comfort from this reality.

In the end the message from Stamford Bridge was quite unequivocal. Chelsea were once again a product of the best of Mourinho, a team of ultimately disembowelling strength and self-belief. The result may not have been delicious and the Michelin star is no doubt as far away as ever. The same cannot be said, however, of the most valued battle ribbon in European football. On this form, Mourinho's Chelsea are the team everyone has to beat.

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